Afaa Michael Weaver & Yu Jian



Afaa Michael Weaver (Michael S. Weaver), poet, playwright, short fiction writer, and translator, is the author of ten collections of poetry. Born in Baltimore, he grew up in neighborhoods depicted in The Wire, the widely acclaimed HBO series. Weaver has received NEA, Pew, and Pennsylvania Arts Council fellowships. In 2002, he taught at National Taiwan University and Taipei National University of the Arts as a Fulbright scholar. In playwriting, he has received the PDI Award from ETA Theater in Chicago. From 1996 until 2000, he served as Editor of Obsidian III, the journal of black creative writing based at North Carolina State University.

In April 2005, he received a gold friendship medal from the Chinese Writers Association in Beijing. Weaver teaches at Simmons College where he is also director of the Zora Neale Hurston Literary Center and chairman of the Simmons International Chinese Poetry Conference. His collections of poetry include Talisman (Tia Chucha/Northwestern U, 2000) and The Ten Lights of God. (Bucknell U Press, 2000). His tenth collection, The Plum Flower Dance, poems 1985 to 2005 was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in November, 2008, coinciding with his appearance on the cover of Poets & Writers magazine.

Yu Jian considers poetry to be largely a matter of sounding his world with words. Born on 8 August 1954 in the south-western Chinese province of Yunnan, he contracted serious pneumonia when only two years old. An overdose of streptomycin saved his life, but left him with diminished hearing in one ear. Yu Jian accepts this disability of his with philosophical aplomb. In an autobiographical note he once wrote:

“I pay an expensive price for this defect of mine, having had to struggle all my life for equal treatment and respect from others. On the other hand, it has made me accustomed to understanding the world through my eyes instead of talking with others. I have had to create an “inner ear” for myself.”

A watershed in the poet’s creative development came with the publication of the long poem 'File Zero' in 1994. The dang’an (personal file or dossier) is an inescapable fact of life in the People’s Republic of China: it serves as the official life history of the individual as well as a powerful means of surveillance and social control. By casting his poem in the form of a file, Yu Jian not only draws attention to the material and literary nature of this bureaucratic instrument—"only 50 or so pages over 40,000 written characters / plus a dozen or so official stamps seven or eight photographs several fingerprints nett weight: 1000g"— but also to the file’s ultimate inability to “capture” the real essence of individual life.

Detractors of Yu Jian’s work attacked 'File Zero' as “a heap of language-garbage”. However, the poem was considered important enough to become the subject of a conference organized by poetry expert Professor Xie Mian at Peking University in December 1994. But while scholars were able to point out the merits of the poem, some saw it as tantamount to “literary suicide”: it would be difficult for Yu Jian to write anything so forcefully subversive ever again.

Understandably, Yu Jian himself was daunted by the challenge. An even longer poem entitled 'Flight', begun in 1996, became tangled in a string of revisions. The poet turned to the writing of prose and short poems for a time. A collection of travel sketches and impressions of daily life was published in 1999 under the fitting title of Notes from the Human World. At last, on the 23 February 2000, Yu Jian produced his definitive version of a text that runs to a staggering 10,000 Chinese characters.

The poem defies easy summary. It is a jigsaw of 49 sections, riddled with quotes, pastiches, clichés, confessions, descriptions, lists. What holds the whole together is the notion of flight, but the meanings of flight are made multiple by the kaleidoscopic energies of the poem. The text’s central image is that of aeroplane travel, an activity that represents the height of sophisticated modernity for the poet. At the same time, however, “flight” serves as a ready metaphor for the act of writing with its heady “flights” of inspiration, of imagination, of insight.

Less obviously, the whole poem is, in the final analysis, a paradoxical flight away from the terrible dehumanizing elements that underpin the foundations of techno-modern paradise, East and West. The text is littered with quotations from T. S. Eliot and this fact itself suggests that 'Flight' is above all the expression of the poet’s brave coming-to-terms with the waste land elements apparent but rarely acknowledged in the bewildering landscape of contemporary Chinese culture.

- Simon Patton